A rabbi in our community declares that a young man who has studied with him is now qualified to be ordained as a
rabbi. He has asked that I and another rabbinic colleague join him in granting ordination to this student. May I, as
a rabbi ordained at HUC-JIR, participate in such a ceremony?
This is a question of extraordinary sensitivity within the rabbinic community. Virtually all the members of the
Central Conference of American Rabbis are graduates (i.e., ordinees) of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion or some other established rabbinical seminary. To permit the kind of private ordination
referred to in the she’elah is to invite a radical transformation in the way that we liberal rabbis receive our
credentials to serve. An adequate response to this question must therefore address two separate issues. First, what is
the nature of the ordination that we practice today? Must this ordination be granted by an officially-licensed school
or agency, or is any rabbi empowered, as a matter of Jewish law, to ordain a person of his choice as a rabbi?
Second, if the rabbi is so empowered, are there considerations of Jewish law, custom, and Reform Jewish practice
which would argue against the use of this power?
1. Ordination, Past and Present. The “ordination” customarily practiced today, a ceremony we call
semikhah, has little to do with the semikhah described in the Talmudic sources.1
That ancient ritual, according to rabbinic thought, elevated its recipient to the status of the biblical judge
(shofet) and as such the latest link in a chain of Torah transmission that reached from student to teacher
all the way back to Moses.2 The ordained judges were regarded as the legal successors of the
seventy elders who stood with Moses on Sinai. It was they who qualified as elohim (Ex. 22:7-
8),3 empowered to enforce their decisions upon recalcitrant litigants;4 it was they
alone who were entitled to adjudicate all matters of law,5 including diney nefashot (capital
cases) and diney kenasot (fines).6 Ordination was practiced only in the land of Israel. This
explains why Babylonian sages were called rav rather than rabbi, the title bestowed upon the
recipient of semikhah, unless those sages themselves received semikhah in Eretz
Yisrael.7 This semikhah no longer exists, and its power has largely disappeared. In the
words of R. Ya`akov b. Asher: “today, we are all lay judges (hedyotot) and we do not exercise the Toraitic
power of jurisdiction.”8 We function as the agents of the ordained judges of old,9
who commissioned us to exercise judgment within carefully circumscribed boundaries that exclude diney
nefashot and diney kenasot. Various attempts have been made to renew the practice of
semikhah and thereby the rabbinic Sanhedrin, the supreme legislative and judicial body that can declare
the authoritative interpretation of Torah to all Israel. The most notable of these efforts occurred in Safed during
the 16th century; in addition, talk of the re-institution of semikhah was common during the heady days
following the establishment of the modern state of Israel. While those who advocated the restoration of
semikhah relied upon the opinion of Rambam that such an act may be halakhically
permissible,10 they were rebuffed by the firm opposition of most of the rabbinic community.
What, then, is the nature of the “semikhah” we confer upon our rabbis today? R. Moshe Isserles writes that
“the purpose of the ordination commonly practiced these days is to inform the community that the student has
attained the requisite knowledge to rule on matters of Jewish law (higi`a lehora’ah) and that he does so
with the permission (reshut) of the rabbi who has ordained him.”11 In this view, he relies
heavily upon a responsum of R. Yitzchak b. Sheshet (Rivash; late-14th century Spain and North Africa), who
offers a comprehensive halakhic analysis of “this semikhah practiced in France and
Germany.”12 Rivash rejects any real similarity between the original ordination and the
contemporary custom, which he regarded as a mere symbolic representation of the former.13 Today’s
semikhah serves only as a means of granting the student the permission to issue halakhic rulings.
Ordinarily, the requirement of kevod harav, the honor due to one’s Torah teacher, prohibits a student from
issuing halakhic rulings during his teacher’s lifetime. Semikhah is a formal “license” which exempts the
student from this prohibition.14 It does not, however, bestow upon him the full range of powers
associated with the ancient ordination cceremony. The authority of a rabbi’s rulings, in this day and age, is based
solely upon the willingness of the community to abide by them.15 And since the empowerment of
rabbis flows from the people, no organized body, rabbinic or otherwise, is entitled to demand that a community
engage the services of only those rabbis who have received an “approved” ordination.16
2. Ordination and the Qualifications of the Rabbi. The foregoing suggests that today’s seminaries hold no
monopoly over the ordination of the rabbi. Any person acceptable to the community may serve in that position. Yet
this grant of popular sovereignty is circumscribed by a vital caveat: the rabbi chosen must be sufficiently
knowledgeable and qualified. All Jewish communities, including those that did not demand formal ordination,
have nonetheless been concerned that their rabbis meet the criteria of learning expected of Torah scholars. And, as
we have seen, the practice of ordination developed in medieval times in response to this concern.17
Today, the widespread custom (minhag) is to require ordination as testimony that the individual in
question is qualified to serve as a rabbi–higi`a lehora’ah, in Isserles’ phrase–and to perform the functions
generally associated with that office.18
Similarly, it has long been the minhag among the congregations and institutions of the Reform movement
to recognize as “rabbi” only those individuals who have completed the prescribed curriculum at the Hebrew Union
College-Jewish Institute of Religion or other comparable rabbinical school. The ordination which we have come to
demand as the necessary credential for rabbinic employment is the end result of a formal, organized program of
education which the community has identified as sufficient to bestow the title “rabbi” upon its graduates. This
process reflects our belief that a person must be qualified–intellectually, morally, professionally, psychologically–
to carry that title and that seminary education affords the best objective evaluation of his or her fitness.
True, Jewish tradition does not demand that rabbis graduate from seminaries.19 We do not say that
seminary training is the only way in which a candidate for the rabbinate can acquire the requisite learning and
skills.20 Nor do we argue that it is a foolproof method: we all know that our rabbinical schools
sometimes turn away good candidates and ordain bad ones. Our seminaries can and should constantly strive to do
better. Nonetheless, as a general rule, we believe that the course of education at a reputable seminary is a better
preparation for the rabbinate than are the available alternatives, whether “private ordination” from an individual
rabbi or attendance at a lowly-regarded rabbinical school. Unlike either of these, the seminary exposes its students
to a diverse and distinguished faculty of teachers, a liberal curriculum of Jewish studies, a decent library, and a
host of supervised field-work practica. Our community has chosen this means to determine whether the candidate
higi`a lehora’ah. And Jewish tradition, which both requires that a student meet this standard and which
has developed the contemporary custom of semikhah in order to test for it, allows us to make this choice.
By contrast, a “private ordination” grants the title “rabbi” to students who have not met this test. It is therefore
destructive to our goal of a rabbinate that measures up to the highest attainable standards.
Moreover, in the case at hand, since the rabbi who asks this she’elah did not teach the student in question,
he or she has no way of determining whether that young man has met the standards we expect of rabbis (hig`a
lehora’ah). Even if it were our custom to accept “private ordination,” it would be inappropriate for this rabbi
to take part in the ordination ceremony. To be sure, it has long been a practice to have rabbis other than one’s
teachers add their names to the semikhah document; in this way, one’s credentials would appear more
impressive to one’s potential employers. Yet some sages have condemned this practice as senseless, a sign of the
intellectual and social decline of the rabbinate.21 It seems senseless to us as well. One who has never
taught a student is in no position to testify to that student’s fitness to serve as a rabbi.
3. Ordination and Kevod Harav. In addition to the determination of the student’s rabbinical qualifications,
we have seen that the tradition offers another reason for the contemporary practice of ordination:
semikhah is a license which permits the student to function as a rabbi without violating the principle of
kevod harav, the duty to render honor to one’s teacher. This duty implies that the student must not engage
in a disagreement (machloket) with his teacher over a matter of halakhah.22 The
precise dimensions of this machloket are a matter of dispute. Some authorities hold that a student is
forbidden to establish a yeshivah without his teacher’s express permission.23 Others allow
the student to teach Torah but forbid him to issue halakhic rulings without the express permission of his
rav.24 While most allow the student to debate his teacher and argue against him “should he
have textual proofs for his contrary opinion,”25 some deny him even that degree of intellectual
freedom without his teacher’s permission.26 At any rate, all authorities agree that even after
ordination, the ordinee is in some way kafuf lasomeikh, subject to the authority of the ordaining
rabbi.27 To act otherwise is detrimental to the kavod (honor) of one’s teacher and, by
extension, of the rabbinate as an institution.
Our sho’el asks whether a rabbi ordained at HUC-JIR may confer “private ordination” upon a student. To
answer this question fully, we must consider whether and to what extent the alumni of HUC-JIR are
kefufim, subject to the authority of those who ordained them.
On the one hand, we reject any such suggestion. Surely we are not prohibited from disagreeing with our teachers
over matters of Torah. Reform Judaism proclaims our intellectual freedom, and our semikhah is testimony
to our readiness to exercise that freedom as rabbis.
Yet on the other hand we feel just as surely a sense of obligation to render honor to our rabbis, those who
instilled Torah in us and prepared us for the momentous task of transmitting it to our people. We, too, recognize
the principle of kevod harav. And this principle, if it means anything at all, must be more than mere lip-
service or sentiment. It implies that we have a duty to promote the welfare of the College-Institute in any way that
we can. It demands at the very least that we avoid taking actions which would undermine the centrality and
integrity of the College-Institute as the agency by which North American Reform Jewry has chosen to train its
rabbinic leadership in accordance with its religious world-view and its educational philosophy. Our
semikhah, whatever powers it confers, cannot entitle us to undermine the school which granted it to us.
Yet “private ordination” does just that. For an ordinee of HUC-JIR to grant such an ordination, offering a shortcut
to semikhah which bypasses the rigors and requirements of a seminary curriculum, is to exceed even the
most lenient interpretation of kevod harav. It is, quite simply, an act of zilzul harav, of scorn and
disrespect to the teachers and the school which gave us the opportunity to become rabbis.
To repeat: we do not claim that our seminaries are perfect, nor do we say that one who has studied for “private
ordination” cannot be a good rabbi. We know nothing of the details of this case. It is quite possible that the young
man in question is a sincere Jew who wishes nothing more than to spend his life in service to his people. Our
answer is not directed toward him as a person but rather toward a practice. It is a practice that, in our view,
undermines the process by which we educate our rabbis and judge their fitness to serve in that position, endangers
the survival of our rabbinical schools, and constitutes an affront to the honor of those who taught us Torah. It
cannot be justified within our community, and those rabbis who engage in it do a profound disservice to the
Reform rabbinate and to Reform Judaism as a whole.
For these reasons, we urge our colleagues in the strongest possible terms to refrain from awarding “private
- The fourth chapter of Yad, Hilkhot Sanhedrin, is a particularly useful summary of the laws of semikhah and of the traditional
understanding of that institution.
- See BT. Sanhedrin 5b and 13b.
- BT. Sanhedrin 56b.
- BT. Sanhedrin 16a; cp. Rashi to Deut. 16:18
- See the midrash in BT. Gitin 88b on Ex. 21:1: “these are the commandments which you shall place before them”– before them, and not
before hedyotot (non-ordained judges).
- BT. Baba Kama 84a-b.
- BT. Sanhedrin 14a; Yad, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 4:6. A form of semikhah, to be sure, was practiced in Babylonia under the auspices of the
exilarch, who regarded himself in many respects the institutional equivalent of the patriarch in Palestine. See BT Hilkhot Sanhedrin 5a on Gen.
49:10 and Yad, Sanhedrin 4:13: the exilarch possessed the power to enforce his decisions, much as the ordained judges of Eretz Yisrael–the elohim–
were entitled to enforce theirs. On the other hand, this enforcement power was seen to be based upon the recognition of the exilarch by the Gentile
government. Moreover, the Babylonians understood that their semikhah did not confer upon them the entire range of juridical power which belonged
to the ordained scholar of the land of Israel. See the letter of R. Shmuel b. Eli, published in Tarbiz 1(1930), no. 2, 82.
- Tur, CM 1.
- Shelichut dekama’ey avdinan; see BT Gitin 88b and Tosafot ad loc. s.v. bemilta.
- Yad, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 4:11 and Kesef Mishneh ad loc.
- SA, YD 242:14.
- Resp. Rivash, no. 271. Rivash’s words testify that the practice of ordination was not recognized in Spain, ostensibly because the Sefardic
communities were better organized and were able to insure the quality of their rabbinic leadership without resorting to semikhah. For a full historical
treatment, see Mordekhai Breuer, “Hasemikhah Ha’ashkenazit,” in Zion 33 (1968), 15-46, and Jacob Katz, “Semikhah Vesamkhut Rabanit Bimey
Habeinayim,” in I. Twersky, Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, Cambridge, MA, 1979, 41-56.
- See R. Yehudah al-Barceloni (Spain, 12th cent.), Sefer Hashetarot, p. 131: today’s ordination is but a zekher lesemikhah. The same
terminolgy is used in the late-19th cent. Arukh Hashulchan, CM 1:14.
- On kevod harav, see M. Avot 4:12 (reverence for one’s teacher is equivalent to reverence for Heaven);BT. Bava Metzi`a 33a (restoring a
teacher’s lost object); BT. Sanhedrin 109a (to dispute one’s rav is tantamount to disputing the Divine Presence), and elsewhere. On the prohibition
against issuing halakhic rulings in the presence or during the lifetime of one’s teacher, see BT. Sanhedrin 5b and Yad, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 5:2-3.
- Even should a Gentile king appoint a chief rabbi, which is entitled to do under the rubric dina demalkhuta dina, that rabbi’s rulings are
null and void in the absence of community acceptance (haskamat hakahal); Tur, CM 3. See, in general, Arukh Hashulchan, CM 1:17.
- Many medieval communities, particularly Sefardic ones, did not require ordination of their sages; see Resp. Rivash, # 271, and the
other sources cited in note 12, above.
- See Isserles at note 11, above.
- Arukh HaShulchan, CM 1:14: no one should preside over weddings, divorces, or chalitzot unless he possesses “the customary
ordination” (semikhah hanehugah). See also BT. Kiddushin 6a and Rashi, s.v.lo yehe lo `esek imahen.
- Indeed, the style of rabbinical school to which we liberal Jews are accustomed is a relatively recent innovation in Jewish life, the product
of the efforts of nineteenth-century western Jewry to cope with the challenges of modern culture. On the development of modern rabbinic education,
see Simon Schwarzfuchs, A Concise History of the Rabbinate (Cambridge, MA, Blackwell, 1993), 86ff.
- In Babylonia during talmudic times, for example, the common method of Torah instruction was
the “disciple circle”; see David Goodblatt, Rabbinic Instruction in Sasanian Babylonia (Leiden: Brill,
1975). Students tended to move on to study with other sages when they had mastered all that a
particular teacher could give them (BT. Avodah Zarah 19a-b and Zevachim 96b). This shows that even
then, during “pre-seminary” times, one gained one’s scholarly reputation as the disciple of many
- R. Shelomo Luria (16th-cent. Poland), Yam shel Shelomo, M. Baba Kama 8:58.
- BT. Sanhedrin 110a.
- Yad, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 5:2; Bayit Chadash to Tur, CM 242.
- Kesef Mishneh to Yad, loc. cit., though the concept of a “halakhic ruling” is also defined rather narrowly; see SA, CM 242:8.
R. Yisrael Isserlein (15th-cent. Germany), Pesakim Ukhetavim, # 238, cited in Isserles, SA, YD 242:3; R. Ya`akov Emden (18th-cent.
- Germany), She’elat Ya’avetz, I, no. 5.
- Siftey Kohen, YD 242, # 3.
- R. Yosef Kolon, Resp. Maharik, # 117; SA YD 242:5-6.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.